Making no bones about his musical values, Alan Jackson waved the flag for traditional country at his Nashville concert stop Friday, Feb. 25, at the Gaylord Entertainment Center.
A backdrop of Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, George Jones and other of Jackson’s honky-tonk heroes was rolled down. His show opened with the effect of a radio broadcast from yesteryear. Hank Williams Sr., Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Lefty Frizzell and snippets of Grand Ole Opry broadcasts, among others, were heard between the pops and crackles of a turning radio dial.
When Jackson took the stage to sing “Gone Country,” the audience had been primed. He good-naturedly rollicked through nearly two hours of hits from his decade-long career, as well as a few numbers from his recent album, Under the Influence. It was not so much what Jackson said, but his choice of songs that let his fans know what camp he was in. Twin fiddles fueled “Pop a Top,” the Jim Ed Brown classic that Jackson had interjected with a few lines of George Jones’ song “Choices” and left the stage in protest during last year’s Country Music Association awards.
A cover of local bluegrass singer Larry Cordle’s song “Murder on Music Row,” about the demise of traditional country in the corporate world of Nashville’s famed music district, got a big response from the energetic crowd. Jackson explained that it hadn’t been released yet.
“It’s good to be playin’ here at home in Music City — you’re all wound up here! We had to drive all the way across town to play for you,” Jackson bantered. Dressed in his usual attire — torn jeans, plaid shirt with the sleeves cut off and a white hat — Jackson looked relaxed, the working-class hero.
There was a strong visual element to Jackson’s show. His baby photos flashed behind “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow.” A vampy video spiced up his song “She’s Got the Rhythm (And I Got the Blues).”
Jackson covered his career hits, including the Tom T. Hall chestnut “Little Bitty,” “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” and “Chattahoochee.” He scaled down for a four-song medley, talking to the audience intimately about his career. He covered part of his first hit, “Here in the Real World,” from his debut 1989 album and a few bars of “Wanted,” then jumped forward to “Everything I Love” and “Song for the Life.”
A former hit for the Eagles written by Steve Young, “Seven Bridges Road,” also got the crowd hootin’ and hollerin’. Although the harmony wasn’t as full as the original, it was still a soulful rendition of the country rock classic. Another song from his current album written by Hank Williams Jr., “The Blues Man,” had a fine electric guitar solo and pedal steel work.
Jackson was backed by his band, The Strayhorns, consisting of Robbie Flint (steel guitar), Danny Groath (lead guitar), Mark McClurg (fiddle), Monty Parkey (piano and keyboards), Bruce Rutherford (drums, percussion) and Roger Wills on bass. Though occasionally kick-drum and bass heavy, the crack players dazzled the audience with their dynamic musical chops.
Opening act Clay Walker made his Nashville debut. The amicable, boyish-faced singer with the wide grin thrilled the crowd with his gyrating, strutting stage presence and energetic show. His set was full of special effects, including glitter, streamers, fake snow and confetti that rained down on the dancing crowd. During “Live, Laugh, Love,” the title track from his current album, a couple of giant palm trees inflated, and fans volleyed beach balls that shot out into the audience. The crowd sang along to such radio-friendly numbers as “If I Could Make a Living.” Although more pop-inflected, his set also included traditional instrumentation with fiddle, pedal steel and mandolin. Walker was a real crowd pleaser, but Jackson definitely delivered the goods.